WHITTIER — On a kiosk near the entrance to Pioneer High School there is a simple message: "Pioneer is a world of special people."
Marilyn Littlefield, chairman of the girl's physical education department and director of its nationally renowned drill team, is one of those special people.
"It's too bad we don't have a Marilyn on every campus. Her commitment to the students is remarkable," said Darlene Staib, the school's career guidance counselor.
Like a Second Mother
"She's like a second mother to us. She's not like other teachers," said Gizela Meza, 17, a senior on Littlefield's 87-member drill team. "She's in tune with us. She knows when you're down. She senses it. . . . She understands because she cares."
Littlefield, 43, has been concerned about students since the first day she stepped on the Pioneer campus 20 years ago, only a year out of college and, by her own admission, still "wet behind the ears." She has always wanted to teach; even as a teen-ager at El Rancho High School in Pico Rivera, she says teaching was her only game plan.
"I decided long ago I could make a difference," she said. "I've never stopped trying."
She's been a success, both as a teacher and with the drill team, which has won numerous national awards, including third place in last month's prestigious Drill Team U.S.A. competition at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.
Littlefield is the matriarch of the team, and its only director in the past two decades. Besides winning trophies and glory as a unit, Littlefield believes the drill team builds self-esteem, a sense of responsibility and commitment.
"Most of these girls don't come from wealthy backgrounds," Littlefield said in an interview in Pioneer's faculty lunchroom. "And many are educationally disadvantaged. They've never had to be responsible, either to themselves and others. But once on the team, they have to pass classes, show up at practices and know their routines. Either they do it or they're gone. It's a real awakening--but a good one--for many of the girls."
To qualify for the team, a student needs a C average, good citizenship grades and a willingness to work, often hard and long, particularly in the fall when three-hour after-school practices are common.
In return, Littlefield, who grew up in Pico Rivera and lives in Whittier, has created what some drill team members call a "family feeling."
The energetic educator agreed, describing her role as a combination of teacher, den mother and friend to the girls. The bond between teacher and team was strengthened in the early 1970s, when Littlefield began taking the team on summer trips to Europe, the West Indies and Mexico to sightsee and perform. Money for the trips was raised through bake sales, car washes and donations.
"You would be surprised how many of them have never been outside the immediate area, much less on an airplane," she says. "For some a trip to downtown Los Angeles was a life-changing experience."
Littlefield says she's never married or had children because "I haven't got the time."
She's paid $1,200 a year--the same as a varsity sports coach--for running the drill unit. But she smiles when asked if the money is adequate compensation for her time.
"Believe me, it works out to pennies per hour," she said.
While Littlefield confessed she can be as tough as a drill sergeant, she said "for every bark there must be two pats on the head."
The approach has been a bona fide success. A case in point is the recent Drill Team U.S.A. competition, in which Littlefield's troops performed a rousing five-minute routine to a medley of Andrews Sisters' hits.
While some drill units might have opted for more contemporary music, she challenged the team to be "bold and different." The more she talked, the more the team listened and liked the idea of using the '40s numbers.
"They soon realized the importance of being novel," Littlefield said. "My goal, and it has always been my goal, is to expand students' horizons by challenging them through hard work. Their reward is a sense of accomplishment."
And for some, the rewards included an appearance on international television last summer. Many of Littlefield's girls were among the 1,200 drill team members in the Opening Ceremonies for the Summer Olympics. Even Littlefield got in the Olympic act, helping choreograph and direct some of the numbers in the Opening Ceremonies. During one stretch, she was at rehearsals six days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day.
"I talk about challenge a lot," she said. " That was challenging."
At Pioneer, the drill team is among the most popular groups on campus. Littlefield's first unit had 50 members. But as the team's reputation grew, so did the interest. In recent years, as many as 400 girls have shown up for spring tryouts, hoping to land one of the team's 80 to 90 slots.
Staib believes the stiff competition to make the team is healthy.